The world spins by ever faster, a phenomenon not just of growing older — accumulating our own extensive, personal archive — but also a product of every generation leaving behind more for us to chew on, despite the same amount of time to chew. We mostly survive by keeping our heads down, locking out the rest of the world, isolating ourselves in our earbuds, screens, and living rooms. When Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest classical musicians, pulled out his Stradivari violin to play for free at a Washington DC metro station, most passerby were incapable of snapping out of their morning daze to stop and pay attention. Extraordinarily few events are truly cathartic, not for a single individual, but genuine collective catharsis. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the freedom of Nelson Mandela, the Cuban Revolution, 9/11. They are events rooted in emotion, they change our worldview, and they seem to actually change the world around us, even as the initial moment of catharsis is inevitably circumscribed by the determined shortcomings of human nature.
Colum McCann has written elsewhere that he set out to write a book about 9/11. An Irish emigre, living in New York and teaching at Hunter College, he experienced firsthand how the day changed New York City. His father-in-law was among the lucky ones who escaped from the second tower before it crumbled to ground zero. But those memories, those images, were still too raw, too recent, to view through the looking glass of a novelist. He needed an allegory, which he found even before 9/11, tucked away in Paul Auster’s 1992 The Red Notebook. The 100-page collection of stories mentions Philippe Petit, a 61-year-old mischievous Frenchman who on August 7, 1974 walked a tightrope from one Twin Tower to the other. Writes McCann:
Shortly after 9/11 everything in Manhattan seemed to have intimate meaning … A car on 85th Street sat collecting parking tickets at first, but they soon became flowers: On the dashboard was a fireman’s parking permit … Somehow each thing was linked with the next and the last.
The question, as a writer, was how to find meaning at all when there was, in plain sight, a world charged with meaning …
The tightrope walk was an act of creation that seemed to stand in direct defiance to the act of destruction twenty-seven years later.
Philippe Petit walking on a metal cable between the Twin Towers as an airplane passes overhead. Photograph by Vic DeLuca, 1974.
McCann immediately began researching New York City circa 1974 and the novel is a testament to his due diligence, but it doesn’t get bogged down by historical trivia. As McCann continued his research, the famous high-wire walk became much more visible to my generation. Petit himself published an autobiographical account in 2002, which was then turned into a stunning 2008 documentary (available via streaming on Netflix).
But wait, that’s not what this novel is about at all. Rather, Petit’s daring walk becomes an anchor, a single event with which to examine a single year in a single city from multiple perspectives as lives criss and cross with little consideration of all that leads to our every interaction. This is what makes McCann’s writing breathtaking. It takes one hell of a ballsy novelist to have a go at narrating from the first-hand perspective of a neurotic Park Avenue housewife, a late-career prostitute in the Bronx, a burned out city judge, a Guatemalan nurse. But he does all of this and much more with seemingly little effort. And from the lives of the characters we begin to piece together some of the emerging trends of 1974: the soldiers back from Vietnam and desperate for sex and drugs, the creeping understanding of the eventual impact of ARPANET, the epidemic of housing fires in the South Bronx, the boom of liberation theology.
This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly two years now. I’m not sure what inspired me to finally pick it up this month, but it made for fortuitous companionship. When a character narrated her experience on 53rd and Lexington, there I was, at a hotel just two blocks away. When another character was mugged in Harlem near 5th avenue and 120th Street, I was once again just a few blocks away, reading myself to sleep at a friend’s apartment. New York City today is so different from the New York of 1974 that it was at times difficult to believe McCann’s portrayal. And yet I know that his descriptions are grounded in impeccable research, that the city really has changed so radically in such short time (even if today’s subway rats are the very descendants of their 1974 forefathers).
It is difficult to compare 1974 with today and not come away with some sense of optimism. The world — or at least New York City — has become a more tolerant, more respectful, safer place to live. I traveled to New York, in part, to see if I could ever live there. I gave myself a full seven days; from SoHo to Harlem, Newark to Brooklyn, all the way over to Long Island. I wanted to consume and digest the entire city, to let it envelope me, to make it my own, to see it from the eyes of a resident. But quickly I realized that I came with a fundamentally flawed strategy. New York City is too much of an experience for any one person to understand. Residents quickly learn to break it down into its comfortable, component parts. “You can’t treat New York City as a single entity,” one friend tells me as I complain about sensory overload and exhaustion. “I’ve got my weekly dinner friends and my community garden … you know, you learn to find your spaces, your routine.” And by necessity, you begin to shut the rest out, turn your senses off, hide in your iPod, magazine, and private world of private thoughts.
Literature is still a wonderful trick to break down those component parts we all create and tie it all together again. “One of the points of this novel,” writes fellow Hunter College professor Nathan Englander, “is that, no matter how many worlds New York contains within it, it’s really a wonderful, singular, unified city.” McCann begins the novel with a quote from Aleksandar Hemon: “All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is.”
The concern, of course, is that literature becomes our escapism, our excuse to see individuals and communities unlike our own without ever actually interacting with them. That literature becomes an isolated end in itself rather than an inspirational beginning to a fuller, more satisfactory life. I have recently begun reading three “anti-armchair” guides to Mexico City that set out to inspire readers to cross their ordinary social boundaries. All three, beautifully designed guides are available in their entirety online. They are a starting point for me to piece together my own urban tapestry, even if I could never reach the eloquence and ambition of McCann.